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Saturday, January 20, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Viaduct vote set; state may ignore it

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattleites will get to vote March 13 on replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but the election may not resolve anything.

The council voted 6-3 Friday to put two questions on an advisory ballot. One asks voters if they prefer to replace the viaduct with a $2.8 billion elevated highway; the other asks if they want to replace the viaduct with a $3.4 billion tunnel.

It's possible voters could reject both or say they prefer both. It's also possible state legislative leaders, who control more than $2 billion set aside for replacing the 1953 viaduct, will ignore the Seattle vote.

What happens if voters say they prefer both options in the $1 million special election?

Councilwoman Jan Drago, who sponsored the ballot couplet, said she didn't know. "We didn't go there," Drago said.

A staff analyst told council members during Friday's meeting it would be a "conundrum."

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said it would be highly unlikely voters would favor both options. But if they did, Ceis said, one option would almost certainly get more votes than the other.

Ceis said having two questions also allows voters to choose none-of-the-above, by rejecting both options. "If they want to tell us they don't like either one, they should have that option," he said.

Mayor Greg Nickels, who pushed for the March vote as Seattle's last, best chance for a tunnel, was in San Diego on Friday speaking on climate change and was unavailable to answer questions.

In a written statement he said, "I will abide by the results of the election, and I would expect the Governor and state legislative leaders who requested this vote to do the same."

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But House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, called the ballot measures approved by the city "a meaningless advisory vote."

House Democrats, he said, are moving forward with replacing the viaduct with an elevated highway. That will hold true, Chopp said, even if Seattle voters support the mayor's new, trimmed-down tunnel proposal.

"We stand by our position," said Chopp, a longtime tunnel opponent.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, declined to comment, saying she had not seen the ballot measures.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she wants to know what Gov. Christine Gregoire thinks of the city's actions. "I've always supported the governor, wherever she's been at," Haugen said.

Gregoire issued a statement Friday night suggesting that in placing the smaller-tunnel option on the ballot, the City Council was putting a proposal before voters that "has not been validated for very important issues, such as safety, capacity and cost."

"We must move forward," the governor's statement said. But it was unclear whether, like Chopp, she intends to move forward with the elevated structure.

Marty Brown, Gregoire's legislative liaison, said the governor was trying to figure out how to interpret the council's action.

"She's still working to try to bring folks together, yet she knows she needs to respect the roles of the Legislature and the city," Brown said.

Nickels missed a doozy of a council meeting, which included squawking feedback from malfunctioning microphones, an edgy debate over whether public testimony should be allowed, an offer by Councilman Peter Steinbrueck to give up his seat if that would stop a new elevated highway, and Councilwoman Jean Godden commenting on the "Freudian aspects" of tunnel claustrophobia.

And let's not forget Councilman Richard Conlin's resolution calling for city and state leaders to overcome a climate of "anger, mistrust and serious conflict" by convening in a "mediated summit to seek consensus" on how to move traffic along Seattle's central waterfront. The resolution passed.

Along with all the speeches, the council charted a historic course: It asked that this be the first all-mail election in Seattle history.

That decision is up to the county elections department. It has been the department's practice to comply with cities' requests for all-mail elections, elections spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

An all-mail ballot is likely to "reach more voters" and boost turnout, Drago said. Tunnel proponents, such as Drago, believe an all-mail election would favor the tunnel by bringing out younger, more liberal voters.

Council President Nick Licata, a tunnel opponent, said the council was "playing with fire" in its ballot language.

"It will look like we can't get our act together. There's an excellent chance both will pass," he said. "What does that mean? We like transportation?"

Later, in an interview, Licata said the council's ballot language may prove a smart pro-tunnel strategy because it gives the tunnel option — which has not fared well against the elevated highway in head-to-head poll questions — a fighting chance to get more than 50 percent voter support.

Licata, Steinbrueck and David Della voted against the dual-question ballot.

The council's action Friday capped a tumultuous week of debate over how to replace the earthquake-damaged viaduct.

Nickels on Tuesday began championing a four-lane tunnel as an alternative to the $4.6 billion, six-lane tunnel he had wanted for so long. The four-lane tunnel would carry just as many cars as a six-lane tunnel, he said, and cut $1.2 billion from the price.

The next day, Gregoire and legislative leaders said the four-lane tunnel was not an option, and the state would either replace the viaduct with an elevated highway or shift more than $2 billion from the viaduct to the Highway 520 floating-bridge project.

Her announcement prompted Nickels and council members to work toward the March advisory vote.

The four-lane tunnel, called the "Surface/Hybrid Tunnel" in the ballot language the council approved Friday, has been intensively studied only since Jan. 5. At the city's request, the state Department of Transportation and project consultants examined data on the idea. An expert review panel, appointed last year to look at the viaduct and Highway 520 bridge, said the smaller tunnel "showed promise," could save hundreds of millions of dollars and merited more study.

But DOT officials ceased work on the issue Jan. 11 and said the state would not fund further viaduct study by the panel.

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said he couldn't comment on whether the city's $3.4 billion figure for the smaller tunnel is credible.

"We are not going to say anything about a number that we haven't had a chance to examine," he said.

In a draft agreement with the state, the Mayor's Office has said the city would be responsible for all tunnel-related costs above $2.8 billion, including overruns.

Drago, head of the council's transportation committee, said after Friday's vote that if the DOT didn't study the new tunnel costs, the city would hire an independent firm the council hopes would validate the numbers.

In the end, Drago, who supports the four-lane tunnel, said a vote was the only way to avoid having an elevated highway forced on the city.

"We don't need Olympia dictating to Seattle," she said. "We can speak for ourselves."

Staff reporters Andrew Garber, Susan Gilmore, Mike Lindblom and Ralph Thomas contributed to this report.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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